Strength training exercises

Nancy Ferrari

Senior editor, Harvard Health

You can build strength in a number of ways. Some popular options are systems such as the Nautilus, Cybex, or Universal machines found at gyms and health clubs. But you can design an effective strength training program at home with a sturdy chair (preferably with armrests), athletic shoes with nonskid soles, an exercise mat, ankle weights, and dumbbells. The 12 exercises outlined here work each of the major muscle groups and can easily be performed at home. When doing them, begin with the ones that are performed while standing, then move on to sitting exercises, and finally, the floor exercises.

Some people perform all of their strength training exercises during a single session that they repeat two or three times a week. Others prefer to break strength training into smaller chunks, working different groups of muscles each day. For example, they might work their arm and shoulder muscles one day and then work leg and abdominal muscles the next. Just make sure that you work different groups of muscles on successive days, allowing at least 48 hours between workouts for the affected muscles to recover.

As you work through your strength training program, keep these guidelines in mind:

  • If you’re just beginning, start by lifting small amounts of weight to avoid straining a muscle or injuring yourself. Choose a weight that’s comfortable, but challenging. If you can’t comfortably do eight repetitions of an exercise, the weight is too heavy. If you can do more than 15 repetitions, it is too light.
  • Move only the part of your body that you’re trying to exercise. Don’t rock or sway.
  • Lift the weight slowly. Take about three seconds to lift it, hold the position for a second, and then take another three seconds to lower it.
  • Breathe slowly, inhaling as you lift and exhaling as you lower the weight.
  • Never hold your breath.
  • Rest for a minute or two between each set of eight to 15 repetitions.

Dumbbell squat

For your buttocks and thigh muscles

Dumbbell squat

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms at your sides and palms facing inward. Slowly bend your knees, lowering your buttocks about eight inches while keeping your arms down straight. Pause. Slowly rise to an upright position. Do eight to 15 repetitions. Rest and repeat the set.

Biceps curl

For your arms, shoulders, and upper back

Biceps curl

Stand or sit comfortably with your arms at your sides. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, and slowly lift them to the level of your upper chest, keeping your arms close to your sides. Lower the weights slowly. Do eight to 15 repetitions. Rest and repeat the set.

Overhead press

For your arms, shoulders, and upper back

Overhead press

Stand with your feet slightly apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height. With your palms facing forward, slowly lift upward until your arms are fully extended. Slowly lower the dumbbells to chest level. Do eight to 15 repetitions. Rest and repeat the set.

Side leg raise

For your hips and legs

Side leg raise

Wearing ankle weights, stand behind a sturdy chair, using the back for balance. Slowly raise your right leg to the side until your foot is eight inches off the floor. Keeping your knee straight, slowly lower your foot to the floor. Do eight to 15 repetitions. Switch to the left leg. Rest and repeat the sets.

Standing calf raise

For your calf muscles

Standing calf raise

Stand with your feet flat on the floor. Hold the back of a chair for balance. Raise yourself up on tiptoe. Hold briefly, and then lower your-self. Do eight to 15 repetitions. Rest and repeat the set. Variations: As your strength and balance improve, tuck one foot behind the other calf before rising on tiptoe; do sets for each leg. Or stand on both feet, but do not hold on to a chair.

Triceps extension

For the back of your upper arms

Triceps extension

Stand with your feet slightly apart, holding weights at your side with your palms facing behind you. Lift the weights straight up. As you lift, you’ll be raising your elbows up and bending them at about a 90-degree angle. Your shoulders should not hunch up and your elbows should not be any higher than your shoulders. This is the starting position. While keeping your elbows at the same level, slowly straighten your lower arms so that your arms are outstretched. Pause. Slowly return to the starting position. Do eight to 15 repetitions. Rest and repeat the set.

Hip extension

For your hips and legs

Hip extension

Wearing ankle weights, stand about 12 inches behind a sturdy chair. Using the back of the chair for balance, bend your trunk forward 45 degrees. Slowly raise your leg straight out behind you and then lower it to the floor. Repeat eight to 15 times with each leg. Rest and repeat the set.

Curl up

For your abdominal muscles

Curl up

Lie on your back on a mat. Put your hands beneath the small of your back and bend both knees to help stabilize your spine. Slowly raise your head and shoulders just a few inches off the floor. Pause. Slowly lower your head and shoulders. Do eight to 15 repetitions. Rest and repeat the set.

Upright row

For your arms, shoulders, and upper back

Upright row

Stand with your feet shoulder-distance apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing your thighs. Slowly lift the dumbbells to shoulder level, allowing your elbows to point outward. Slowly lower dumbbells to the starting position. Do eight to 15 repetitions. Rest and repeat the set.

Lateral raise

For your arms, shoulders, and upper back

Lateral raise

Stand with your feet slightly apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing your thighs. Keeping your arms straight, slowly lift the dumbbells until they are slightly above your shoulders. Slowly lower the dumbbells to your sides. Do eight to 15 repetitions. Rest and repeat the set.

Forward fly

For your shoulders and upper back

Forward fly

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. Bend forward from the hips until your torso is nearly horizontal. Keep your back flat. Hold the dumbbells below your shoulders with the palms facing each other. Raise your arms, pulling the weights apart and bringing your shoulder blades as close together as possible. Pause. Return to starting position. Do eight to 15 repetitions. Rest and repeat the set. You can also do this exercise while seated, leaning forward at a slight angle and keeping your back straight.

Knee extension

For your hips and legs

Knee extension

Wearing ankle weights, sit in a firm, straight-backed chair with your knees six inches apart and a small towel folded under your thighs. Slowly lift your right foot until your leg is straight out in front of you. Lower your foot slowly to the floor. Do eight to 15 repetitions. Rest and repeat the set.

Originally published Oct. 1, 2008; last reviewed April 26, 2011.

Comments:

  1. Sulis

    Increase the load is one way to overload the mueslcs for gains. I actually like to increase the time under tension before adding on more weight to my lifts. It’ll show you were you’re really at you may even be surprised by how strong, or not strong, you really are.-Mitchell

  2. Aravind

    Increase the load is one way to overload the muecsls for gains. I actually like to increase the time under tension before adding on more weight to my lifts. It’ll show you were you’re really at you may even be surprised by how strong, or not strong, you really are.-Mitchell

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